CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Missiles made in Russia, tested in Kazakhstan and fired on Ukraine

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Missiles made in Russia, tested in Kazakhstan and fired on Ukraine
The Russians have for decades used the vast expanses of the Kazakh steppe for weapons testing.
By Peter Baunov in Astana March 11, 2024

Russia, you might be a little shocked to learn, has an agreement that gives it the opportunity to test missiles on Kazakh territory, prior to deploying the verified weapons to kill Ukrainians. This is, one should add, no secret in Kazakhstan and, indeed, it is “old news” to Kazakhs who take an interest in this kind of thing. However, given an article published in late February by Novaya Gazeta, the unsettling testing arrangements have been making some headlines outside of the country.

As you might expect, this story of Russian missile testing in Kazakhstan has a complex background, as the unfolding article in the “exiled” Riga-based Russian newspaper itself revealed.

The reporter’s driver and guide tells how the Russians have for decades used the steppe in Bokeyorda, western Kazakhstan, for weapons testing.

"Here we have rocket fragments still lying around," the guide remarks to the correspondent of Novaya Gazeta, while holding pieces of metal in his palm. "The Russian military should arrive, fence off the impact site and collect the wreckage. But usually, we do it ourselves. Somehow, their rocket [on this occasion] didn't explode. And we saw them come and just bury the rocket.

“From that spot to the houses, it's about two kilometres. There have been cases where rockets fell in populated areas, one even fell on someone's barn. I can't recall a rocket hitting a house, but we definitely don't know how much damage has been done overall, and if there have been any casualties, because we have no control from our side. The authorities of Kazakhstan try to hide this situation."

The guide also reflected on the health of cattle in the area. According to local accounts, cattle in the vicinity tend to drink the water that collects in craters left by Russian missiles. Also disturbingly, there have been an unspecified number of cases of cancer among adults and children born with disabilities in the locality, which locals imply could be a consequence of the weapons testing.

Overall, the situation as outlined by the guide sounded bleak. 

In April last year, Russia fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Russian territory to the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. The test took place despite Kazakhstan's commitment to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which Astana ratified in 2019.

A dilapidated facility at Sary-Shagan (Credit: Nikolay Bulykin, cc-by-sa 4.0).

The Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor, a watchdog, pointed out discrepancies it saw in Kazakhstan's tolerance of the firing. Such missile tests do not align with the spirit of the TPNW, it said. 

An expert on Russian strategic nuclear forces, Pavel Podvig, remarked in a tweet after the ICBM test that the missile launch “was an important test for the TPNW and… not an easy one.”

“Sary-Shagan is largely a missile defence site [that] was used by the Soviet Union to test various defence-related systems—radars and interceptors in particular… [and] one can argue that missile defence may be TPNW-compliant,” he wrote. 

At the same time, “the situation with the launches from [Russian test site] Kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan is a bit different. These are tests of ICBMs… ICBMs are very much dedicated nuclear weapon delivery systems,” he added.

Kazakhstan responded to the raised concerns by noting that none of the tested ICBMs carried nuclear payloads. 

Stray missiles
Sary-Shagan is located near Bokeyorda. And it appears that inhabitants of the area are affected by stray missiles that feature in tests that should be confined to the territory of Sary-Shagan.

The Sary-Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range, spanning 943,000 hectares, is a test site for the development and testing of armaments, anti-missile weapons and anti-aircraft weapons, officially leased by Kazakhstan to Russia since the mid-1990s (the lease costs Russia only $2.3 per hectare per year). The range is situated to the northwest of Lake Balkhash on the desert plateau of Betpakdala, which spans the Karaganda and Jambyl oblasts. It was established in 1956. The plateau’s flat and sparsely populated landscape was attractive to weapons engineers.

As mentioned by Podvig, rockets are fired from Russia’s Kapustin Yar, a proving ground in Astrakhan Oblast. Moscow has used the facility to carry out approximately 400 anti-missile launches, approximately 5,500 anti-aircraft guided missile launches and more than 900 ballistic missile tests, according to Defence24

The reality is that the Russians have always used post-Soviet Kazakhstan for weapons testing. It is only the advent of the Ukraine war that has brought the matter, and the concerns of Kazakh locals about the effects of the missile impacts, into focus. Little to no attention was paid to what is taking place before.

Those who say Kazakhstan should now move to end the testing overlook a crucial fact. The Tokayev regime that nowadays rules the country was shown to have a rather unsettling dependence on Russia during the anti-government unrest and riots that broke out in “Bloody January” 2022. As speculation mounted that the unrest could be exploited by rivals to Tokayev who were aiming to topple him with a coup, Tokayev reached out to the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin’s sending of troops to stand guard over the scene as Kazakhstan’s president reasserted his authority (the troops were not called into action during their short stay, but their presence was sobering enough for some regime opponents) ultimately allowed officials to stabilise things and consolidate power, while sidelining predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, members of his clan and other backers. The consequence? There must be a certain amount of “You owe me” in the Putin-Tokayev relationship.

So while Tokayev has not offered any backing to Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, he has not proved too much of an irritant to the Russian dictator. Existing deals between the Kremlin and Astana, such as the agreement over missile testing ranges, have remained firmly in place.

The Sary-Shagan lease is not due to expire until 2030.

Kazakh Deputy Defence Minister Shaykh-Hasan Zhazykbayev gave assurances over how the range is used in comments made to local media on February 28.

"There is such a range, but not for unguided missiles. Regular missiles are used. The range is Sary-Shagan. According to a 1993 agreement, they [the Russians] can carry out testing there until 2030. It's the 110th training centre of the Russian Federation. For missiles with a range of up to 200 kilometres [124 miles]. No, there is no infrastructure at this range, no local population," Zhazykbayev said, adding that the site is used for 50 missile tests per year. 

Numerous assets
Numerous Russian defence assets and facilities remain in Kazakhstan, though several have been closed down. 

Sites that have been closed include Balkhash Radar Station, located near Sary-Shagan. It boasted six radars, but the final radar was decommissioned on 1 June, 2020, by the Russian Space Forces.

Another no longer functioning site is Emba-5 missile test site. It is a military facility situated close to the town of Emba in western Kazakhstan. The area was used similarly to Sary-Shagan by Russia under a leasing arrangement until 2016. 

There are two other major Russian military facilities in Kazakhstan to mention. 

The first is the 929th Valery Pavlovich Chkalov State Test Flight Center, in Taysoygan, near the Russian border in northern Kazakhstan. It serves as a primary aviation research institution for the Russian Federation Air Force. According to Defence24, it conducts tests on military aviation equipment and aviation weapons, including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, armaments, ground service and air facilities. 

By relying on airports, training grounds, and specialised laboratories, the 929th also performs climatic and mechanical research, among other activities. Annually, it conducts over 220 independent tests, at least 1,600 flights and over 70 research projects.

A Soyuz rocket set for launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome (Credit: Nasa/Bill Ingalls, public domain).

The second facility to take note of is the Baikonur Cosmodrome space flight centre, the most well-known Russian asset in Kazakhstan. It is from here that the USSR put its first satellite, Sputnik-1, and Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach space, into orbit. 

To note, Baikonur, the world’s largest space port, is technically not a military asset, but many of the Russian satellites that it sends up certainly are. 

Russia has held an exclusive lease on Baikonur, located in southern Kazakhstan, since 1994. It pays $115mn in rent every year and transfers approximately $38.5mn annually to a nearby town.

However, Moscow has been facing difficulties at the spaceport since its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Though Kazakhstan and Russia have agreed to turn Baikonur into a hub for a new Soyuz-5 rocket programme to compete against Elon Musk’s SpaceX, many hoped-for clients and investors have made it clear that they will not be working with Russia due to the war and the resulting sanctions imposed on Moscow.  

Ultimately, the West is very unlikely to come to see Russia’s military facilities in Kazakhstan as anything like a major headache in the context of its attempts to support Ukraine and deter other nations from backing Russia in the conflict.

The most concerning role Kazakhstan appears to be playing for the Russian military-industrial complex is as a third country that receives exports and re-exports them to Russia. The situation is opaque. It is not clear what volume of sanctioned goods are making it to Russia via Kazakhstan and whether the volume is rising or falling. But Western capitals have not made a song and dance about the trade route in comparison to their criticisms and moves against other third countries.

Kazakh officials would have the observer believe that that is because “there is nothing to see here”. While they concede that some private traders in Kazakhstan must be dodging sanctions on behalf of Russia in the shadow economy, they claim that the volumes of such trading are neither high nor indispensable to Russian arms factories.

As for the weapons testing, Kazakh officials have likely advised Ukrainian officials behind the scenes that, while they are sympathetic over the awkward situation, the proving grounds operate according to agreements sealed many years ago and are not up for negotiation.